Ireland really is the Tasmania of Europe. An isolated island off the coast of Dublin has a mob of wild wallabies running amok on it. YES, WALLABIES.
By Nicole Buckler
As we all know, wallabies are cute little macropods found in Australia and New Guinea. They are only found in their native countries. Well… that’s what you were told. In fact, wallabies are found in a lot of places where wealthy collectors of yore wanted exotic pets and dragged them from their homes Down Under. Of course, these marsupials soon managed to free themselves and the rest is history.
Rich people in UK were particular suckers for the idea of importing exotic animals. Even cold, cold Scotland has not been immune to colonisation by our furry friends. Inchconnachan, an island in Scotland’s Loch Lomond, has its own group of wallabies. These however weren’t criminals on the run: they were released in 1920 by Lady Arran Colquhoun, an exotic pet collector. The red-necked wallabies still roam wild in Scotland today.
Such wallabies were imported along with yaks, llamas and emus. Wartime regulations forced private zoos to close, and so many animals were set free. Of all of the exotic pets released, the wallaby is the only species to have survived in the wild.
The strangest of all UK wallaby stories surfaced in 2007, when a fully-grown albino wallaby was photographed in Buckinghamshire. Presumed to be the offspring of zoo escapees, it was as white as snow and looked totally at home in the English winter.
A colony of these furry cuties have even established themselves on the Isle of Man. The colony bred itself into existence from a single pair that escaped from the Curraghs Wildlife Park on the island some years ago. It’s like an inbreeding episode from Game of Thrones.
The Lambay Island Wallabies
So, wallabies have established themselves successfully right across the British Isles. Ireland’s wallabies live in an established colony on Lambay Island – a small, isolated windswept place off the coast of Dublin.
So here’s the story about how the wallabies arrived on the island. In the mid-1980s, Dublin Zoo had a wallaby population explosion. The wallabies were very happy in Dublin zoo and were breeding way too much! Fota Wildlife Park in Cork took some of the animals, but there were still too many. So, Dublin Zoo director Peter Wilson, not wanting to destroy the animals (or feed them to the tigers), turned to the Baring family – the private owners of Lambay Island.
Lambay Island was the perfect place for wallabies: in fact, there was already a small population of them on the island. This proved that the zoo rejects would survive in the wild. And as both groups were the same red-necked wallaby species, this would expand the gene pool of the existing wallabies on Lambay.
So how did the original group of wallabies make it to Lambay Island? Legend has it that the Barings imported them from Australia to feature in a private zoo. They also imported other animals from all over the world, but only the wallabies survived. The Barings apparently released the wallabies when the zoo idea proved to be a non-runner. Apparently there is an old black and white video made in about 1930 of Lord Revelstoke walking around his formal gardens on Lambay with wallabies bouncing around in the background.
The Baring family agreed to take the zoo wallabies. They were shipped to the island in fishing trawlers, and set free. Now, around 50 wild wallabies live happily on the island. They have even adapted to the harsher climate quickly: they have particularly dense coats of fur compared to their Aussie cousins.
The Lambay Island wallabies are Ireland’s only wild population of marsupials. Peter Wilson was happy with this decision, telling the Smithsonian, “It’s a wonderful sanctuary for them, if you like, a perfect habitat. There’s lots of thick vegetation for cover when the weather’s cold, and there’s a lot of grass and things for them to eat, so it’s an absolutely perfect place for them.”
In terms of an keeping an invasive species contained, the island is a good vessel: it is a three-mile swim to the mainland. Confined to the island, they’re not likely to spread, and disruption to the local eco-system can be somewhat controlled. The wallabies live happily in Ireland… probably not wondering if drier, sunnier places exist. For them, Lambay Island is like a tiny Australia.
Lambay Island is still privately owned: it is in the hands of Lord Revelstoke (Alex Baring to his friends). He is the descendent of Cecil Baring, the third Lord Revelstoke, who bought the island in 1904. It has a private castle on it, which the owners live in to this day. If you want to see the Irish wallabies for yourself, you can travel to Lambay as part of a guided tour. Once on the island, you have approximately two hours to wander accompanied by one of the guides. Click here to book.
A further interesting note about Lambay: The island has claimed a number of shipwrecks, one of the most notable of which was RMS Tayleur. One of the largest merchant ships of her day, she struck the island in January 1854 just hours into her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Australia and sank with the loss of 380 lives. Just three survivors were reported, one of whom was the ship’s cook and of African origin. Legend has it that the islanders had never seen a black person before and were too shocked to open their doors to the survivor!